There are few names in the proverbial Rolodex of Branson royalty which match up to Jim Owen. Known as “King of the Ozarks Float Trip,” and sometimes “King of the Hillbillies.” One of Owen’s favorite lines was “If you’re too busy to fish, you’re too busy.”
That’s easy to say for a man who built an empire on the float trip industry on the White River.
Jim Owen was a multi-talented man. He had the gift of gab and could relate to just about anyone. He also had the gift of self promotion and used that to his advantage when he found himself living in the small town of Branson.
Owen, who had spent time in advertising for a newspaper in Jefferson City, made his way to the area in the early 1930s to help his father open the Owen Drug Company in downtown Branson. Soon after, he opened the Owen Theatre, a popular place for teenagers to hang out and watch films in an air conditioned environment. The Historic Owen Theater is still open today, and is home to the Branson Regional Arts Council, which uses the building for theatrical events. Such businesses certainly contributed to the economy of downtown Branson, but it was his love of the outdoors that helped him to promote the town as a tourism destination.
In 1935, Owen founded the Owen Boat Line, an outfitter that offered float trips along the White River. His overnight tours of the White River included tour guides, campsites along the shore and skillet dinners with all the fixin’s. His friendly demeanor and ability to befriend people of all types brought some big names to the Ozarks, including Charlton Heston, Forrest Tucker and Gene Autry. On a side note, it is said that Heston was in the Owen Theatre, when an employee approached him with a phone call. Heston took his call and came back out a few minutes later, excitedly explaining he had just been casted to play Moses.
Owen also befriended famous artist Thomas Hart Benton and television producer, Paul Henning. You probably remember Henning as the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies, among other popular television shows of the time period. It didn’t take long for Branson to become a popular destination for tourists; not because of the big names who came here, but for the very same reason the actors and artists did so. It was the scenic beauty of the land that brought visitors to the area. In a sense, Owen knew how to exploit the land for its natural beauty, and he did so very well.
Owen’s popularity, business know-how and his ability to promote the area as a place of tourism helped to get him elected to the position of major for three terms. The White River tours eventually came to a halt in the late 1950s due to the construction of the Table Rock and Bull Shoals dams. By the time Owen’s float trips ended, he had more than 40 boats and a large team of guides. According to his Obituary, Owen became a convert to the dams because they provided a playground for so many people.
“Put 50 boats on Table Rock Lake and you can hardly find them”, Owen said. “Put 50 boats on the old White River and it was getting mighty crowded.”
After the float trips ceased, Owen continued to flourish in Branson with his real estate business, until he had a stroke in 1966. After the stroke, he devoted more time to writing articles about the outdoors, contributing to numerous publications and magazines. His book, “Hillbilly Humor,” was published in 1970. By the time he passed away in 1972, Jim Owen had become an owner of multiple businesses in the Branson area, a published author, major, bank founder and president, local celebrity and promoter of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States.
Owen’s vision for the things he was passionate about made a lasting impression on Branson and paved the way for the small town in Taney County to become an entertainment mecca.